In the last 50 years or so, economic development has meant that the fields of artistic production by and large have failed to attract top talent

September 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

Given the wild historicist philosophising to which historians of the old school were inclined, it’s small wonder modern-day historians eschew theory-making in general.  It is also regrettable because to do so is to overcompensate:  exaggerate in the opposite direction.  After all, history is supposed to teach us something about the way the world works: trying to draw conclusions about general mechanisms of history really should lie at the heart of historical inquiry.

C. V. Wedgwood does this rather well.  Her way of interpreting some mechanisms of history is ambitious and thought provoking, without being wild — perhaps because it is couched in economic and psychological terms rather then the vague “civilization” or “progress” or “gender construction” or “Orientalism”.  The author’s seemingly “sweeping” observations strike us with their profoundly common sense.  Such as her observation that the cause of the decline of the Catholic church in the Netherlands in the 15th century was… a brain-drain from the church to the professions,  a brain-drain caused by… the rapidly improving opportunities in trade and industry.  She thus suggests the existence of a fascinating cultural/economic mechanism (also proposed by someone else to explain America’s cultural decline during the Gilded Age):  that a society’s economic success can be bad for its art.

One can see the mechanism at work in our own time:  the last 50 years in the “first world” have seen fantastic opportunities in banking, finance, technology, real estate and marketing and that’s where all talent went; by contrast, the fields of artistic production (painting, sculpture, literature) and art management (museum directors, theater directors, critics, scholars) have failed to attract the best talent; which has resulted in the sort of production we have seen:  uninspired, shallow, derivative, technically poor, gimmicky.  In culturally more successful periods (such as the Renaissance) artistic production attracted talent which may equally well have been deployed in science or engineering (and often was:  Leonardo was a anatomist, Michelangelo a builder, Cellini an engineer).  By contrast, twentieth century art looks like something produced by people whose alternative economic options were on the scale of selling pimple remedies via mail order in small town newspapers.

Perhaps when at last the true (economic) “decline of the West” finally sets in, talent will begin trickling back to art.

Embrace the crisis.


A great artist is no more (and no less) than someone in extraordinary control of his craft

September 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

Without seeing Glenn Gould’s 37 pages of notes on Kusa Makura (Three-cornered world) it is hard to guess what it was that he loved about it.  Did he like the reflections on the similarities and differences of poetry and painting?  But Lessing’s Laocoon has already made it amply plain that nothing interesting can be said about the matter. (I do not believe the two can be any more usefully or meaningfully compared than recreational swimming and differential equations can).  Did he believe in the existence of moral or artistic truth?  (“A great literary work can encompass a visual masterpiece only if it radiates the same moral truth” says Damian Flanagan, but does he know what that means?)  Did he think the work really accurately represented the process of the creation of a work of art?

All these ideas are tired 19th century claptrap and only bore and exhaust someone like me who believes a great artist is no more (and no less) than someone in extraordinary control of his craft; that great art has nothing to do with moral truth, or artistic truth, or any other wise truth, and everything to do with technique; that it need not describe or discuss or reveal human feelings at all; and who does not believe that a great artist either is or needs to be spiritually different from “most people” (which the novel repeatedly claims).  GIGO, say computer specialists, meaning “garbage in garbage out”, i.e. that starting out from false first principles can only lead to false conclusions:  what wonder we have the art theory — and the art — we do if we started out with all that nonsense?

But there is an extraordinary beauty to several sections of the novel, and the last chapter is absolutely breathtaking.  In English, this beauty owes as much to the translator (Alan Turney) as it does to the original:  much of it is verbal; consider how beautifully this poem is translated:

Your obi worked loose and flutters in the breeze,
But once again ’tis for pretence and not spring’s passion it unwinds.
The maker’s name, though woven into silk,
Is, like your heart, unreadable.

But there is also that special je ne se quoi aspect of it — that it infuses us with profound sadness on the one hand and the urge to reflect on absolutely everything, the way Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus do.  That it represents a universal scene — the departure of a soldier — has more to do with its impact than one is at first inclined to believe.

Nastume Soseki, Kusamakura: matter of a single image, a very few words

September 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

“She had tied the red obi around her waist with a simplicity which suggested a young girl’s indifference as to whether or not it enhanced her charms. Carrying an old fashioned taper in her hand, she had led me to the bathhouse now this way now that, around the bend after bend along what appeared to be passageways, and down flights of stairs. In front of me all the time were that same obi and that same taper, and it seemed as though we were going along the same passage and down the same staircase again and again. Already I had the feeling of being a painted figure moving along on a canvass.”

Natsume Soseki, Kusa Makura (The three-cornered world), III, 40-41

Kusamakura is an introspective novel. The first chapter is indicative of the rest: it starts with the sentence: “Going up a mountain track, I feel to thinking” and the rest are the hero’s thoughts. This is a very attractive structure for someone like me – more interested in the internal life of men than in what actually happened (the action is always the same – she wants him, but she does not want her back, or the other way around).

The thoughts themselves are rather disappointing: they illustrate the disappointing effects of the lack of training in rigorous thinking in all humanist curriculae; and even if the total lack of familiarity with recent advances in psychology and cognitive science are forgivable (after tall the book was written in 1906), the most serious problem with all these introspections is that the novel describes the internal life of a man of around 30. Think about it:  when is the last time someone aged 30 has had anything interesting to say to you?

Yet, to me, reading Kusa Makura has been a remarkable experience — and this entirely on the strength of the passage I quote above. The hero arrives at a remote guesthouse in the mountains; it is night-time; and the maid – the sole person in the whole house as far as he can tell – is taking him to the mineral bath somewhere deep in the bowels of the house. This image – the red obi, the taper, the going down and down endless narrow passages and stairways in the moving globe of flickering light and the altered state of mind of having entered a painting. There is much reflection on painting in the book, but this is the only one that matters: yes, there is that state of mind one enters into when looking at paintings, a moment of endlessly suspended time.

It is almost as if the entire novel – all those pages, all those chapters – were needed only to provide the setting for that single image, like all that twisty metal which holds the one object of any worth, the jewel.  Much art is that way: the slow, repetitive, mesmerizing overture is needed to put the audience in the mood, to sensitize them, so that they may be ready to receive what you have to tell them.

Which may well be a matter of a single image, a very few words.

The consistently low quality of art collections in Portugal is surprising given her fabulous past

September 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

One very remarkable aspect of life in Portugal is the low quality of art in her museums, her galleries, and her private collections.  This once metropolis of a globe-spanning commercial empire, and later fabulously rich owner of goldmines of Brazil (Joao V stopped summoning the cortez (parliament) because he did not need a penny in local taxes to support his lavish spending), so proud of her discovery of the world, has imported very little in terms of worthwhile art.  Unlike other empires — Spain, France, the UK, Russia — who have collected art on a massive scale, Portugal really has very little to show for her glorious past artistically.  What is there is poor (the “Sino-portuguese” pottery so prominent everywhere is rather poor quality “export porcelain”); or recent gifts (the Namban biombos (screens) at the Arte Antiga are a recent a gift from a Japanese collector); or imported collections (Gulbenkian).

It’s perfectly in keeping with the general lack of curiosity about the outside world which seems to characterize the whole nation.

Compare that to Poland — never a colonial empire, or much of an empire at all — whose collections over the last two centuries have been bombed, burnt, and stolen by foreign invaders — stolen on a massive, programmatic scale — and there is more and better art to be seen there, surviving all those cataclysms, than here where no such cataclysms have taken place.

Prices are high, perhaps reflecting more than just Portugal’s inclusion in the European market — after all, antique furniture — consistently better quality than her art — is about half the price of Paris or London.  Art prices are especially unreasonably high given the quality of what is on offer (with the possible exceptions of Indian and Lankan ivories which are good and plentiful) and perhaps reflect investors’ worry about the prospects of their currency (“panic investments”).

We have entrenched an art theory which fails to deliver

September 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

We have an art theory which fails to deliver.

This art theory is buttressed by a lot of sunk cost (“investments” in garbage misunderstood as valuable art, “investment” in reputations based on having promoted the said theory of art); and by the way museums, galleries, and state funding operate (they invest money according to this theory); providing in the process funds to recipients who can use those funds in turn to extract even more on the same principles; and to defend those principles:  i.e. to suppress any alternative theory of art since that might see the public and gallery money going elsewhere.

As a result, I am afraid, we are never going to have decent art again — as long as the present system exists.

Why write? (2)

September 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

A certain Polish composer wrote around the age of thirty: “All that matters to me now, today, is music, my music.  It is the only thing in the world for me.”  Then, aged 50 — shortly before his death and already sick — he wrote:  “I have failed in my music.  I never quite got it.  Only in [xx]  there I had it for a moment, didn’t I?  But the rest — the rest is a failure.”

The thing is — his music isn’t great (as I reflect now, re-listening).  So… is his case a case of someone realizing only at 50, upon reaching fullness of age, in a kind of flash of revelation, that all his life he’d been writing drivel?  If so, his story would be a sad story indeed, but one containing a central kernel of hope:  the hope being the fact that we — some of us — can learn to understand better — even if that knowledge should come too late, as it did for the composer in question, at least it can come.  How much better is such a case than a case of someone who’ll have gone down to his grave without realizing what waste all his production has been.

Or is his case a case of someone writing drivel, seeing it for what it was all along, but persevering all the same?  And if the case is this case, then one must wonder:  how does one dedicate himself to the creation of inferior art?  Does one do this because one hopes that “in time things will get better”?   Or does one do it for some other reason — perhaps in order “to be an artist”?  For the status — whether to impress the unwashed even if it is only self-perceived?

Tschaikovsky, Brahms, Wagner — did they honestly think they were writing good stuff?  One has to wonder:  in a letter to his publisher Brahms refers to his second symphony as a “charming monster”.  A monster it is — but is it… charming?  To whom?  To Brahms?  Because he happened to write it?  Whatever does he mean by charming?

Why write?

September 5, 2012 § 2 Comments

Her last letter to me ended with the usual exhortation for me to write.  You do it so well, she said, it is all so interesting, you tell us all those things we ignoramuses don’t know.  [Tricky words from a university professor, published novelist and someone rather famous — to someone entirely unknown and without credentials].

Ah, yes, well, thank you.   I guess all those years of traveling and reading, of living an odd lifestyle in all sorts of odd places where other people who share my interests do not usually go, let alone live, have not been entirely in vain…  why, given the gift of the lifestyle, of the experience, it would have been proof of utter imbecility of me if I did not make at least some observations…  so perhaps I did figure out a thing or two which have not occurred to others, not because those others are dim, but because these things simply could not have occurred to them because there weren’t there, they haven’t see what I have seen.  So perhaps I do have something to say, however insignificant it may be.

But I don’t seem able to explain it — no one seems to understand what I think I am trying to explain…  or even notice that it is in any way important…  or care.  the fault must be entirely mine, of course — if a speaker isn’t getting through to a crowd, it isn’t the crowd’s fault — but the truth is that I am no longer worried about it… it doesn’t seem to matter to me anymore if anyone does understand — or care.

I do write, of course — like you, I have been writing all my life.  I have been writing as an aid in thinking — I don’t seem to understand what I think until I see what I write;  I write as an aid in reaching that understanding which I think I have reached…  but I have never cared to be published, to see my words in print.  I have never been ambitious that way. It just doesn’t seem such a big deal to me to be a book shelf or to be mentioned in a newspaper book review.  (I was once a fashion model; my mother kept all the magazines and calendars in which I featured, but I… did not. If anything, I was embarrassed by them).

It is true that at one point I did publish a successful blog and that when I did it, at the time, I did go out of my way to promote it.  But I didn’t do it for fame or to shine or to exist (some people seem to exist only to the extent that they exist in other people’s minds, but I have always felt secure in the knowledge that I exist, even on five-day solitary hikes in the mountains):  I did it because I imagined that the internet, then young, offered a way for like minds to meet, to find each other, to talk.  In the end I am not sure that I succeeded in proving that:  I am not sure I really found any “like” minds…  I know I found plenty enough “unlike” minds.  I have met others, too, who have been gentle and generous — like you — but, I repeat, even in those cases I don’t think I have met any “like” minds.

If anything, talking to people on that blog about art and literature I have discovered what I have discovered in all life, that I don’t really understand other people.  A scientist-philosopher once published a huge hit of a paper in which he argued that we (“we, cognitive scientists”, that is) could never understand what it was like to be a bat on account of the animal’s unique sensory system (echolocation).  Be that as it may, I find that I cannot imagine what it is like to be other people!

I have spent the last two years reading memoirs and letters of many prominent thinkers and I have discovered that their likes and dislikes, their desires and ambitions and fears were all very odd to me — a was the way they reasoned about them.  I am sure the feeling is mutual and this disparity, this gulf, is one reason perhaps why I seem unable to explain my discoveries; and the conviction of the vastness of this gulf, now stronger then ever, is the main reason why I no longer try to explain.  I mean…  if by some miracle I managed to convince someone that the theory of art he has learned in art 101 and which everyone seems to accept and which fuels all the furious production and all the auction house bidding and all the museum building and going… if I convinced someone that there was something fundamentally wrong with that theory…  that it was only a plausible-sounding falsehood…  if a light lit up in their heads saying “aha”, would they really understand that which I am trying to say?  Or would they understand something completely different and would I have any clue as to what they got out of the conversation?

And — why should I worry about that at all?

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